KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kids today have access to the world in the palm of their hands. Many spend more time on a device than they do face-to-face with any human.
While there’s a whole lot of good about existing in such a connected world, there are downsides, especially when it comes to kids.
“Nearly 80% of first-time exposure to pornography is happening in the home, and it’s coming through devices, through apps, and through games,” Fight the New Drug Founder and President Clay Olsen said of his non-legislative and non-religious nonprofit, which aims to educate the public about the dangers of pornography.
Olsen said 10 years ago only 14% of pre-teens reported seeing some form of pornography.
Today, that number is 70% and, in most cases, the kids come across it accidentally.
“Average age of exposure has traditionally been quoted at 11 years old, but we are seeing studies now showing that it could be as young as 9 years old," Olsen said. "The point is that this is not a question of if they will be exposed, but when and what degree."
Olsen and his team recently spoke to groups of kids, parents and other adults about the dangers of pornography and how it affects the brain.
Michael Cullinan, principal at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic School, was first approached about having the Fight the New Drug team address the middle school grades at St. Michael. He was hesitant at first, but after calling around and researching the messaging, he agreed to have them speak to his students. He said he's glad he did.
“I think we’ve done a wonderful job of educating young people about the hazards of alcohol and addiction, and tobacco, and illicit drugs, and vaping … but I think science has just caught up with what pornography can do to the mind,” Cullinan said.
Part of the video presentation Olsen's team shows students highlights research done on the brain.
“Everything that we do each and every day shapes our brain to the thing that it is,” Simone Kuhn, senior researcher at Max Planck Institute for Human Development, said. "So, if I really like sports, I have brain regions dedicated to swimming and stuff. On the other hand, if I watch a lot of porn, I will train my brain regions responsible for porn a lot more."
According to experts, exposure to pornography changes a person’s brain and, therefore, their relationships.
“Research is helping us understand that pornography is impacting what we love, how much we love, how we think about love and how we express love," Olsen said. "Boiled down, it’s impacting love — our ability to connect with other human beings in the most healthy way."
So, if you’re like many parents, and you’re wondering how you can best guide a child through this digital minefield of inappropriate content, Olsen said it’s about being in constant communication in a non-judgmental, kind, and loving way.
“Study after study is helping us understand that the number one thing that helps teens or youth avoid inappropriate content or dangerous content online is the strength of their relationship with their parents,” Olsen said.
It matters, according to him, because young people respond more to research and science than they do to values and beliefs. Olsen said parents should be armed with science and facts and work their own family values and belief systems into an ongoing conversation.
“Parents all the time talk to me about the fact they have this event – these birds and the bees discussion, and those days have got to be behind us. It has to be an ongoing conversation that happens in natural opportunities and events with each child, one on one,” Olsen said.
Fight the New Drug has a “Choose Your Own Adventure" informational page on its website, which they said can help guide any person through how to start a conversation about pornography.
A parent can select they are preparing to have a conversation with their child. Then, the site will prompt the parent to answer whether they are talking to a child who has already seen pornography, or if they are beginning a preventative discussion.
For the purposes of this example, the parent chooses the option indicating they want to have a general conversation with a child about the dangers of pornography. The site will then walk the parent through the uncomfortable feelings which are undoubtedly occurring in the parent. The message begins:
"Listen, we know this can be awkward, intimidating, and/or scary, but don’t worry—we’re here to equip you for this. Let’s start by reviewing a few tips to help you prepare and build confidence before the conversation even starts."
It goes on to say:
"Kids are curious about sex. Spoiler alert: this is normal and healthy. This natural curiosity can, unfortunately, be hijacked by easy-access pornography, which provides highly unrealistic and unhealthy depictions of “sex,” and is a low-quality substitute for teaching what real relationships and real intimacy look like."
It goes on from there:
"Bottom line is, research and statistics indicate most preteens are coming across pornography on their devices – usually accidentally."
Olsen said Fight the New Drug's goal is to make parents aware, and give them the tools to talk to their children.
Setting Parental Controls
Depending on a child’s age, a parent might want to consider restrictions on devices and apps. Most phones and tablets today allow you to set up parameters for what your child can and cannot see, or do, on those devices.
For instance, you can remove Safari from Apple devices to restrict access to the internet. You can also set age limits on content a child can access on their phone, along with restrictions in certain apps, such as YouTube, which make it nearly impossible to access pornography through the app.
You can also set limits on how much time your child can spend not just on their phone, but on certain apps.
Because there are so many different devices with so many different ways of setting up these restrictions, it’s best to google how to do this.
To get the best results, be specific. For instance, if your child has an iPhone 8, google “how to set restrictions on iPhone 8." If your child has a Chromebook, you’ll want to search “How to set parental restrictions on Chromebook."